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NOTES ON THE PARABLES.
Parable of the Axe.
10LUKE III. 9.
"And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire."-Matt. iii, 10.
THIS parable was spoken by John the Baptist to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to his baptism. Matt. iii. 7. He rebuked them severely for their wickedness, and inquired who had warned them to flee from the "wrath to come. The expression here rendered "wrath to come," is translated by Dr. Campbell the "impending vengeance," and unquestionably refers to the awful judgments which then awaited the Jews in the destruction of their nation. He then requires them to bring forth fruits meet for repentance, or the proper fruits of reformation; and exhorts them not to depend too much on their descent from the patriarch Abraham, for God was able to raise up children unto Abraham even from inanimate things. He did raise up children unto Abraham from among the Gentiles, whom the Jews regarded as stocks and stones, and who were represented as coming and sitting down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in
the kingdom of the Messiah. The Jews were not only proud of their ancestry, but they relied on it for safety in times of public danger and calamity; and hence the rich man in the parable (Luke xvi. 24,) is represented as calling on Abraham as his father, and begging him to send relief.
To show them that the destruction of the nation was to be total, John says, "the axe is laid unto the root of the trees." It is not a few branches which are to be cut off, the tree itself must fall. As the tree which beareth not good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire, so shall it be with this nation. They are corrupt, they are a seed of evil doers, they bring forth the fruit of sin; God shall cause them to fall, and they shall be fuel for the fire of divine judgments.
The figure which John here employed, he unquestionably derived from the Jewish prophets. The destruction of Egypt is described by Jeremiah in very similar language. Jer. xlvi, 22, 23. "They shall march with an army, and come against her with axes, as hewers of wood. They shall cut down her forest, saith the Lord." The fall of Assyria is described in the same manner by Ezekiel.
The Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature, and his top was among the thick boughs. * * * Therefore thus saith the Lord God: Because thou hast lifted up thyself in height, and he hath shot up his top among the thick boughs, and his heart is lifted up in his height; I have therefore delivered him into the hand of the mighty one of the heathen: he shall surely deal with him: I have driven him out for his wickedness. And as strangers, the terrible of the nations, have cut him off, and have left him : upon the mountains and in
all the valleys his branches are fallen, and his boughs are broken by all the rivers of the land; and all people of the earth are gone down from his shadow, and have left him." Ezek. xxxi, 10-12. See the whole of the chapter. Isaiah also says, "Behold, the Lord, the Lord of hosts shall lop the bough with terror: and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, and the haughty shall be humbled. And he shall cut down the thickets of the forests with iron, and Lebanon shall be a mighty one." Isa. x, 33, 34.
In the view which we have given of this parable, commentators of all denominations agree. Adam Clarke, in his Commentary on the New Testament; Kenrick, in his Exposition; Lightfoot, in his Harmony of the Evangelists; the Continuators of Poole's Annotations; Dr. Hammond, in his Paraphrase and Annotations; Bishop Pearce, in his Commentary; Dr. Gill in his Exposition, and others, too numerous to mention, give the same explanation we have given. Although the passage was formerly by some applied to a future state of punishment, such an application is now abandoned except by the ignorant and indiscreet.
Parable of the Winnowing Fan.
MATT. III. 12-LUKE III. 17.
"Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”—Matt. iii, 12.
As in the first parable the destruction of the Jews was foretold under the figure of cutting down
a tree, and casting it into the fire, so in this the dis tinction that was to be made, at the time of that calamity, between the believing and unbelieving part of the nation, is represented by the separation of wheat from chaff, the former of which was gathered into the garner, the latter was burned with "unquenchable fire." The threshing floors of the Jews were built in places well exposed to the wind, and advantages were taken of strong winds for the purposes of winnowing. By the use of the "winnowing shovel," a translation which Campbell prefers to the fan, the body of threshed grain was thrown into the wind, which separated the lighter from the more solid parts. The chaff, of no value, was consumed, but the wheat was gathered into the granary.
This figure was perfectly just, and the propriety of it was afterwards shown by matter of fact. Jesus Christ did thoroughly purge or cleanse his threshing floor. The chaff was separated from the wheat. The unbelieving part of the house of Israel was separated from the believers. The former were destroyed by the fire of the judgments which came on Jerusalem, and which burned until the nation was wholly extirpated, for it could not be quenched. The latter were preserved. Perceiving the signs which Jesus had pointed out as precursors of the overthrow of Jerusalem, they fled into the mountainous parts of Judea, (Matt. xxiv. 16,) where, like wheat in the granary, they were safe from the raging element which devoured the chaff.
The more ancient Jewish writers were in the habit of representing nations about to be severely judged, as grain on the threshing floor. Thus Isaiah xxi. 10: "O my threshing, and the corn of
my floor, that which I have heard of the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you." And in Jeremiah xv. 7: “And I will fan them with a fan in the gates of the land; I will bereave them of children, I will destroy my people, since they return not from their ways. ""
The phrase "unquenchable fire," has been by some adduced to prove the doctrine of never ending punishment. If the explanation we have given of this parable be proper, (and we are supported in it by writers of the highest note who believed in endless misery,) we cannot see how this "unquenchable fire" can be supposed to exist in the future state at all. The threshing floor was not there, nor was the winnowing shovel there, nor was the operation of separating the chaff from the wheat done there; and why the burning of the chaff should be supposed to take place in some other state of existence, we cannot imagine. The husbandman generally burned his chaff where it accumulated after the operation of threshing and winnowing; he did not think of taking it away into some other part of the land and burning it. The fire which is mentioned in the parable, was the fire of divine judginent which fell on Judea, and it was called unquenchable, inasmuch as it did not subside until the work of destruction was fully done. But for a more full exposition of the phrase "unquenchable fire," see the notes on Mark ix. 43-48.